LOS ANGELES — JOHN BELUSHI was a new kind of comedian, with a style so powerful that it took over and transformed every entertainment he decided to honor with his bearlike presence. His brand of wild, look-Ma-no-brains humor became nationally famous on ``Saturday Night Live,'' ushering in a kind of irreverent farce hitherto unknown on television.
Since movies represent the highest rung of show-biz success, everyone knew he'd tackle Hollywood sooner or later, and when he did - in ``Animal House,'' another boffo exercise in excess - the results reflected his personality more than that of National Lampoon magazine, which presented the film, or that of John Landis, who directed it. He was a slob, and he loved being a slob, and his audience loved him for it. His stardom was assured.
All might have gone brilliantly for Mr. Beluishi if his on-screen personality had been just an act cooked up by a mature and self-aware performer. Sadly, his private life was mired in the same kind of freeform outrageousness that marked his public persona, and his career was cut short by untimely death from a drug overdose.
His completed TV shows and movies (from ``Animal House'' and ``Blues Brothers'' to ``Continental Divide'' and ``Old Boyfriends'') still have plenty of admirers. But in today's drug-aware climate, Belushi tends to be remembered with very mixed feelings. Which is a problem for any biographer who wants to chronicle his life and times in a way that will have Belishu-style entertainment value.
How do you make a movie about a man whose idea of fun made him rich and famous for a few years, but eventually landed him in the morgue? ``Wired,'' the new bio-pic directed by Larry Peerce, uses two maneuvers in facing this challenge: It loads the action with Belushi's own kind of pitch-black humor, and it makes his death not the sad finale but the running theme of the entire story.
In a move that Belushi would surely have approved, Mr. Peerce and screenwriter Earl MacRauch make his corpse (animatedly played by Michael Chiklis) the hero of their tale, revisiting the people and places of his life in a last attempt to understand what happened to him. This has an odd effect - reminding us constantly of Belushi's unfortunate fate, yet approaching it from a bizarre angle that makes the whole situation seem farcical.
This strategy is apparently an attempt at pleasing every possible moviegoer. The reasoning seems to be that Belushi detractors will applaud the constant (and cautionary) emphasis on his death, while his admirers will wallow in the zany energy with which it's splashed across the screen.
The picture certainly succeeds at reproducing Belushi's manic energy and wired-up sensibility. But it fails to give any meaningful insights into a couple of issues that must be dealt with if his biography is to have any enduring value:
How did the qualities of energy and nonconformism come to be so overdeveloped in his personality, and why didn't he learn to modify them as he grew and presumably matured? Answers to those questions might have turned ``Wired'' into a probing and even valuable film. As it stands, it's a shallow and often boorish entertainment that trades more in voyeurism than understanding.
Peerce keeps the action of ``Wired'' moving with surprising vigor, considering that much of his past work (from ``One Potato, Two Potato'' to ``The Other Side of the Mountain'') has been in the soap-opera genre.
The generally able cast includes J.T. Walsh and Patti D'Arbanville as well as Ray Sharkey, who's memorable as an angelic taxi driver. Toni Imi photographed the film, which is based on a best-seller by one-time Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, and Basil Poledouris composed the score.
``Wired'' is rated R for various reasons, including raunchy language.